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The effectiveness of blended learning

The effectiveness of blended learning

Education Teaching

A blended learning course combines online components with in-class or offline components so that students are supported in both platforms. The research about blended learning and its effects on students shows a range of opinions. While some experts believe blended learning provides better opportunities for students, others argue that the focus shifts to the delivery model rather than the content, and that some teachers are ill-equipped to manage both offline and online learning environments.

This hasn't stopped the teaching method from spreading. Originally an option for students in alternative schools, blended learning is quickly catching on in mainstream schools. According to Innosight Institute research, "over 4 million [K-12] students were participating in some kind of online-learning program" by 2010, and the trend is showing no signs of slowing.

Potential benefits of the blended learning model

Blended or hybrid learning can provide the ability to personalize lesson plans for different learning styles. Students at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts are exploring a pilot program launched at their college where online lectures from M.I.T are blended with in-class workshops and face-to-face communication. As of the time of the report, 18 of 19 students in the class had passed the midterm, and 16 of them received an A. One benefit of this approach -- and perhaps the one to which the Bunker Hill students' success can be attributed -- is the ability for both students and instructors to customize learning.

President of the M.I.T.-Harvard online collaboration, Anant Agarwal, told The New York Times: "That's one of the beauties of the blended model, that it can be infinitely personalized… You can add as much or as little classroom time as is best for your school. And professors can add their own assignments, their own readings."

Blended learning: examples of success

Some educators have seen their students excel after implementing blended learning approaches in their classrooms, particularly for math programs. U.S. students are still falling behind their international peers in math and science, reports The New York Times. To make matters worse, studies show large gaps in math performance based on gender, race and income. Personalized learning approaches -- executed in the form of interactive online lessons, games and lectures -- as well as one-on-one time with instructors offer tools to combat the significant disparity in performance between different student groups.

For instance, in Palo Alto, Calif., Rocketship Education -- a public charter school -- saw dramatic gains in the performance of elementary school-aged students participating in a blended learning math class. The school reported that within a year after launching the program, 90 percent of the lowest performers had climbed out of the bottom quartile.

In another example, Khan Academy, which offers an "interactive subject-mastery tool," was used by sophomore math students at Oakland Unity High School in Oakland, Calif. A video from educator Peter McIntosh discusses improvements in student engagement and performance. He explains that he saw progress by measuring students' work: "They were doing many, many more problems this year than they did last year." McIntosh notes that interactive online activities make it easier to encourage kids to do homework since "there's less wiggle room for them to back out, because they've got hints they can take or videos they can watch."

Advocates: why blended learning works

Blended learning tools may make it easier for teachers to get a quick assessment of student progress, and the technology may also help with students' sense of involvement. While it provides students with engaging and interactive work, McIntosh highlights that the blended learning program offers teachers a chance to have a more holistic view of student performance, and more easily discover where students are in their learning curve.

Some teachers seem to enjoy the oversight blended learning provides in regards to student performance. Education Week featured a 2012 special report on the keys to success for blended learning and found that "the ability to pinpoint needs and the ability for teachers to use data at a very high level for individualized instruction" remain major advantages to this approach. Integrating data collected from online learning programs with in-class time is yet another key to blended learning programs, which some prefer to strictly online coursework. According to Smithsonian.com, the majority of teachers and students still choose live interaction over completely online programs.

While there are certainly cases in which the blended learning model can be carried out incorrectly, like any other method of teaching, successful implementation of the program seems to depend on setting clear goals. Instructors need to be aware of how to use the technology to track progress and when to engage in one-on-one face time to have more in-depth discussions, in order to help accelerate student learning.

A Northwestern University blog identifies other factors that can contribute to the success of a blended learning program, such as students who are comfortable with e-learning and technology, self-regulation, self-management, and spending time deciding which lessons are most effective online versus in-class. The Northwestern University blog also recommends a careful balance of in-class and online work.

Concerns about cost

Blended learning is not without its drawbacks. While some say that blended learning can be a more cost-effective option, other researchers disagree. The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education and the Center for Technology and School Change at Columbia University compared the cost-effectiveness of online blended learning with that of traditional, face-to-face learning models, and found no cost advantage for blended learning in the test case. Researchers concluded that the sample blended learning program might actually cost more than traditional learning due to licensing, hardware, tech support, construction and other additional costs that come with the non-traditional teaching format.

The future of blended learning

Despite the potential for increased costs, blended learning may be a vital component of the future of education simply because it allows students to work at their own pace -- helping to make sure that students with unique needs or obstacles are not left behind. Hybrid learning can be suitable for students who feel uncomfortable in larger classrooms, who struggle in traditional learning environments, who work in rural areas or who have busy schedules. This approach can also provide benefits in other settings. The method has infiltrated higher education: law schools at American University, Michigan State University and the University of Utah plan to implement blended learning programs in their curriculum in 2013, according to Information Week.

Whether it is a fleeting education fad or a move toward a more effective approach for student learning at all levels, blended learning is continuing to keep students engaged. This perhaps cannot be more vital than in the nation's most troubled schools, and may even help address achievement gap issues. Former Oakland Unity High School principal, David Castillo, points out in a video what blended learning can demonstrate: "Every single student, when given the chance, wants to learn -- they want to be successful."

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